Very old stories

This is intriguing:

In a new study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, a folklorist and anthropologist say that stories like Rumpelstiltskin and Jack and the Beanstalk are much older than originally thought. Instead of dating from the 1500s, the researchers say that some of these classic stories are 4,000 and 5,000 years old, respectively. This contradicts previous speculation that story collectors like the Brothers Grimm were relaying tales that were only a few hundred years old.

It turns out that it’s pretty hard to figure out how old fairy tales are using simple historical data. Since the tales were passed down orally, they can be almost impossible to unwind using a historian or anthropologist’s traditional toolbox. So the team borrowed from biology, instead, using a technique called phylogenetic analysis. Usually, phylogenetic analysis is used to show how organisms evolved. In this case, researchers used strategies created by evolutionary biologists to trace the roots of 275 fairy tales through complex trees of language, population and culture. […]

As they tracked, they found evidence that some tales were actually based in other stories. More than a quarter of the stories turned out to have ancient roots—Jack and the Beanstalk was traced back to the split between Western and Eastern Indo-European languages more than 5,000 years ago and a tale called The Smith and the Devil appears to be more than 6,000 years old.

If true, this would mean that elements of present-day Western culture date back to before the Epic of Gilgamesh and before the first (legendary) dynasty of China. From the study:

Wilhelm Grimm argued that the traditional German tales that he and his brother Jacob had compiled were remnants of an ancient Indo-European cultural tradition that stretched from Scandinavia to South Asia…

In case you were wondering:

The Smith and the Devil is a European fairy tale. The story is of a smith who makes a pact with a malevolent being—commonly the Devil (in later times), Death or a genie—selling his soul for some power, then tricks the devil out of his prize. In one version, the smith gains the power to weld any material, he then uses this power to stick the devil to an immovable object, allowing the smith to renege on the bargain.

(Sound familiar?)

China and the Chesapeake-Leopard affair

Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou pizza

Pizza delivered to Vancouver home of Meng Wanzhou, who has been released on bail

More information is coming out about the arrest in Canada and possible extradition to the US of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou (Sabrina Meng) – aka the Huawei Affair. The New York Times filled in some of the details yesterday. In a nutshell, US counterintelligence and federal prosecutors have been exploring action against Huawei on national-security grounds as far back as 2010, but the authorities decided it would be easier to go after the telecom giant for financial crimes:

But criminally charging Huawei or its executives for espionage or other security crimes was not likely to be simple. Former federal prosecutors said doing so often risked exposing the sources of confidential information. As a result, they said, prosecutors often look to bring more conventional cases involving crimes such as bank fraud. Think of it as the Al Capone strategy: Prosecutors went after the notorious gangster by charging him with tax evasion. […]

This summer, the prosecutors decided to file criminal charges against Ms. Meng — fulfilling their yearslong goal of going after Huawei executives for allegedly acting as an extension of the Chinese government.

Prosecutors filed the charges, under seal, on Aug. 22, and a federal judge in Brooklyn signed a warrant for Ms. Meng’s arrest. The charges focused, at least in part, on her allegedly tricking at least four banks, including HSBC and Standard Chartered, into facilitating the company’s Iranian transactions.

While Ms. Meng’s main home is in Shenzhen, China, she regularly traveled to Canada; she and her husband own two houses in Vancouver. The authorities figured it was only a matter of time before she traveled there, and the United States and Canada have an extradition treaty.

On Dec. 1, Ms. Meng flew from Hong Kong to Vancouver International Airport, where she stopped for a 12-hour layover before flying to Mexico. As she got off the plane, the Canadian police arrested her.

US action against Huawei is long overdue. The problem is that “personalizing” this issue by targeting one of China’s most famous female executives (ranked #8 on the 2017 Forbes China list of the country’s Top 100 Businesswomen) – who now faces up to 20 years in prison in the US – is an example of shocking jurisdictional overreach that, if the nationalities were reversed, would be viewed by the American public and government as tantamount to an act of war.

Key unanswered question: Did Meng make her fraudulent presentation to HSBC in the US?

The Guardian draws an intriguing parallel between the US mindset here, and that of the US’s former colonial master more than two centuries ago:

Blame the British, as usual. In 1807, in the midst of a struggle with Napoleonic France, HMS Leopard, a Royal Navy ship of the line, attacked, boarded and captured an American frigate, USS Chesapeake, off Norfolk, Virginia. The British claimed their action was justified by the presence on the American ship of four English deserters, whom they arrested. But, for President Thomas Jefferson, it was an outrageous, illegal infringement of the sovereignty and independence of the infant republic, eventually leading to the 1812 war.

It’s fair to say the Americans never forgot lessons drawn from the Chesapeake humiliation – and have been faithfully following Britain’s script ever since. As its power grew, the US, too, assumed the right to extend its national writ beyond its shores. One modern example is the way the US justice department ruthlessly pursues foreign nationals, such as the Scottish hacker Gary McKinnon, who are deemed to have broken US law. McKinnon’s extradition was ultimately blocked in 2012 by Britain’s then home secretary, Theresa May, after a public outcry.

Here’s a bit more about the Chesapeake-Leopard affair:

The Royal Navy’s humiliating attack on the USS Chesapeake left many Americans clamoring for war, but there was little the ill-prepared United States could do to answer British aggression.

“Never since the Battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present, and even that did not produce such unanimity.”

–President Thomas Jefferson

As his Royal Navy vessel patrolled off the coast of Virginia, Londoner and former tailor Jenkin Ratford and four other crewmen decided to steal a boat and desert to the shores of Norfolk. Ratford later boasted of his escape to the “land of liberty” in Norfolk’s streets, where his contempt incurred the ire of British authorities. They vowed to make an example of the brazen Englishman, who joined the crew of an American frigate, the USS Chesapeake.

In June 1807, the Chesapeake set sail from Norfolk for the Mediterranean. Its decks scattered with cargo and its guns unwisely stowed, the vessel made an appealing target for the crew of a British vessel, the HMS Leopard, who intercepted it off the coast of Norfolk and aimed to take revenge.

When the British commander requested permission to search the ship for deserters, the American commodore James Barron refused to muster his crew for inspection. Moments later, the captain of the Leopard responded with a barrage of broadsides, killing three Americans and wounding eighteen. British officers then proceeded to board the crippled Chesapeake and seized what they had come for: a handful of suspected deserters, including Jenkin Ratford.

The humiliating exchange infuriated the American public. War fever raged up and down the coast of the United States. President Thomas Jefferson maintained that the country was more exasperated than at any time since the 1775 battle at Lexington Green that touched off the War of Independence, “and even that did not produce such unanimity.” With Republicans and Federalists—normally bitterly divided political factions—both clamoring for action, war between Britain and the U.S. seemed imminent.

In reality, however, there was little President Jefferson could do militarily to respond to the British transgression. America’s small navy was already deployed in the Mediterranean checking the Barbary pirates. America’s army had been long since been gutted by Republicans anxious to reduce government spending. As Jefferson bided his time and war fever subsided, he instead pursued economic coercion as an alternative to war. That economic pressure began a few months later with the passage of the Embargo Act.

The exchange between the Chesapeake and the Leopard had other consequences for its participants, however. Commodore Barron was later court martialed; found guilty of “neglecting on the probability of an engagement, to clear his ship for action,” he was suspended from the navy for five years without pay.

And on August 31, 1807, the Royal Navy got its revenge on the tailor who had deserted his vessel. Tried by court-martial for mutiny, desertion and contempt toward a British naval officer, and sentenced to death, Jenkin Ratford met his end—hanged from the fore yardarm of his former vessel, the HMS Halifax.

The Chesapeake-Leopard affair was one of the events that precipitated the War of 1812, in which the British burned down Washington DC. The Americans got their revenge more than a century later, when FDR stripped the British Empire of its life savings in exchange for desperately needed war supplies at the outset of World War II. History has a dark sense of humor.

Women starting wars

I recently saw a video clip in which the indescribably funny, witty, and all-around superhumanly brilliant comedian Jordan Klepper attempted to trip up an interview subject and make her look stupid by pointing out that all wars have been started by men. I’ll spare you the context of the exchange, but the point is that Klepper really exposed this woman’s intellectual deficiencies, and it was hilarious. To quote Douglas Adams, I coughed and spluttered with mirth.

Only one small problem though. As I discovered via some deft Googling:

In fact, between 1480 and 1913, Europe’s queens were 27% more likely than its kings to wage war, according to a National Bureau of Economics working paper (paywall). And like Isabella, queens were also more likely to amass new territory during their reigns, found the paper’s authors, economists Oeindrila Dube and S.P. Harish.

Then there are all the women who led revolts and rebellions throughout history – from Sparta to Vietnam to Ireland to Mexico.

Huh. So much for that. Anyway.

Ancient Japanese inn

This traditional Japanese inn (ryokan) has been run by the same family for 46 generations. When it was built, in the year 718, the Tang dynasty ruled China, Islam was still expanding into Western Europe and Charlemagne had not yet been born:

 

“To keep this ryokan in this ever changing world, that’s our priority. So sometimes, we have to sacrifice family.”

From the creator of the video, Fritz Schumann:

Houshi Ryokan was founded around 1,300 years ago and it has always been managed by the same family since then. It is the oldest still running family business in the world.

This ryokan (a traditional japanese style hotel) was built over a natural hot spring in Awazu in central Japan in the year 718. Until 2011, it held the record for being the oldest hotel in the world.

Houshi Ryokan has been visited by the Japanese Imperial Family and countless great artists over the centuries. Its buildings were destroyed by natural disasters many times, but the family has always rebuilt. The garden as well as some parts of the hotel are over 400 years old.

Lincoln on disunion

A couple days ago I posted about a provocative article in New York Magazine envisioning the peaceful breakup of the Union. Lincoln’s thoughts about the prospect of carving up the United States are pretty interesting, if not entirely applicable, in this context. Here’s an excerpt from his Second Annual Message to Congress dated December 1, 1862, when America was in the throes of the Civil War:

A nation may be said to consist of its territory, its people, and its laws. The territory is the only part which is of certain durability. “One generation passeth away and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever.” It is of the first importance to duly consider and estimate this ever-enduring part. That portion of the earth’s surface which is owned and inhabited by the people of the United States is well adapted to be the home of one national family, and it is not well adapted for two or more. Its vast extent and its variety of climate and productions are of advantage in this age for one people, whatever they might have been in former ages. Steam, telegraphs, and intelligence have brought these to be an advantageous combination for one united people.

In the inaugural address I briefly pointed out the total inadequacy of disunion as a remedy for the differences between the people of the two sections. I did so in language which I can not improve, and which, therefore, I beg to repeat:

One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute. The fugitive-slave clause of the Constitution and the law for the suppression of the foreign slave trade are each as well enforced, perhaps, as any law can ever be in a community where the moral sense of the people imperfectly supports the law itself. The great body of the people abide by the dry legal obligation in both cases, and a few break over in each. This I think, can not be perfectly cured, and it would be worse in both cases after the separation of the sections than before. The foreign slave trade, now imperfectly suppressed, would be ultimately revived without restriction in one section, while fugitive slaves, now only partially surrendered, would not be surrendered at all by the other.

Physically speaking, we can not separate. We can not remove our respective sections from each other nor build an impassable wall between them. A husband and wife may be divorced and go out of the presence and beyond the reach of each other, but the different parts of our country can not do this. They can not but remain face to face, and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them, Is it possible, then, to make that intercourse more advantageous or more satisfactory after separation than before? Can aliens make treaties easier than friends can make laws? Can treaties be more faithfully enforced between aliens than laws can among friends? Suppose you go to war, you can not fight always; and when, after much loss on both sides and no gain on either, you cease fighting, the identical old questions, as to terms of intercourse, are again upon you.

There is no line, straight or crooked, suitable for a national boundary upon which to divide. Trace through, from east to west, upon the line between the free and slave country, and we shall find a little more than one-third of its length are rivers, easy to be crossed, and populated, or soon to be populated, thickly upon both sides; while nearly all its remaining length are merely surveyors’ lines, over which people may walk back and forth without any consciousness of their presence. No part of this line can be made any more difficult to pass by writing it down on paper or parchment as a national boundary. The fact of separation, if it comes, gives up on the part of the seceding section the fugitive-slave clause, along with all other constitutional obligations upon the section seceded from, while I should expect no treaty stipulation would ever be made to take its place.

But there is another difficulty. The great interior region bounded east by the Alleghanies, north by the British dominions, west by the Rocky Mountains, and south by the line along which the culture of corn and cotton meets, and which includes part of Virginia, part of Tennessee, all of Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, and the Territories of Dakota, Nebraska, and part of Colorado, already has above 10,000,000 people, and will have 50,000,000 within fifty years if not prevented by any political folly or mistake. It contains more than one-third of the country owned by the United States–certainly more than 1,000,000 square miles. Once half as populous as Massachusetts already is, it would have more than 75,000,000 people. A glance at the map shows that, territorially speaking, it is the great body of the Republic. The other parts are but marginal borders to it, the magnificent region sloping west from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific being the deepest and also the richest in undeveloped resources. In the production of provisions grains, grasses, and all which proceed from them this great interior region is naturally one of the most important in the world. Ascertain from the statistics the small proportion of the region which has as yet been brought into cultivation, and also the large and rapidly increasing amount of its products, and we shall be overwhelmed with the magnitude of the prospect presented. And yet this region has no seacoast–touches no ocean anywhere. As part of one nation, its people now find, and may forever find, their way to Europe by New York, to South America and Africa by New Orleans, and to Asia by San Francisco; but separate our common country into two nations, as designed by the present rebellion, and every man of this great interior region is thereby cut off from some one or more of these outlets, not perhaps by a physical barrier, but by embarrassing and onerous trade regulations.

And this is true, wherever a dividing or boundary line may be fixed. Place it between the now free and slave country, or place it south of Kentucky or north of Ohio, and still the truth remains that none south of it can trade to any port or place north of it, and none north of it can trade to any port or place south of it, except upon terms dictated by a government foreign to them. These outlets, east, west, and south, are indispensable to the well-being of the people inhabiting and to inhabit this vast interior region. Which of the three may be the best is no proper question. All are better than either, and all of right belong to that people and to their successors forever. True to themselves, they will not ask where a line of separation shall be, but will vow rather that there shall be no such line. Nor are the marginal regions less interested in these communications to and through them to the great outside world. They, too, and each of them, must have access to this Egypt of the West without paying toll at the crossing of any national boundary.

Our national strife springs not from our permanent part; not from the land we inhabit: not from our national homestead. There is no possible severing of this but would multiply and not mitigate evils among us. In all its adaptations and aptitudes it demands union and abhors separation. In fact, it would ere long force reunion, however much of blood and treasure the separation might have cost. Our strife pertains to ourselves–to the passing generations of men–and it can without convulsion be hushed forever with the passing of one generation.

Rethinking World War II

 

Churchill reviewing American troops

Peter Hitchens has come out with a new book, The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion, that challenges much of the conventional wisdom surrounding Britain’s involvement in the unpleasant events of 1939-45. Here, he summarizes the book’s main arguments, most of which will be familiar to regular readers of Hitchens’ column and blog. For many other people, especially in Britain, I suspect some of these ideas will prove seriously unwelcome.

[UPDATE: I review the book here.]

It seems that Hitchens is touching a third rail of politics with this book, which attempts to take an axe to some of the most cherished Anglo-American beliefs about the war. Here’s a sample:

MYTH 7: WE CAN THANK THE ‘SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP’

Hitler had well-founded suspicions that the USA, far from being a friend to this country, was hostile to and jealous of the British Empire. Indeed, the Anglo-American alliance refused to solidify as long as Britain still appeared to Americans as a selfish, mean and bullying Great Power quite capable of looking after itself. Attitudes began to change only when Britain, admitting it was running out of money, came to America’s doorstep as a penniless supplicant, offering America the chance to save the world.

The extraordinary (and all but unknown) transfer of Britain’s gold to the USA throughout 1939 and 1940 was the lasting proof that a deliberate, harsh British humiliation had to precede any real alliance. The stripping of Britain’s life savings was an enormous event.

Secret convoys of warships were hurrying across the Atlantic loaded down with Britain’s gold reserves and packed with stacks of negotiable paper securities, first to Canada and then to Fort Knox in Kentucky, where much of it still remains. It was not for safekeeping, but to pay for the war. Before Britain could become the USA’s pensioner, we had to prove we had nothing left to sell.

The ‘Lend-Lease’ system, which provided limited American material aid to Britain, was far from the act of selfless generosity Churchill proclaimed it to be. Even the Americans’ Bill had a gloating, anti-British tinge, given the number H.R. 1776 in reference to the year of the US Declaration of Independence.

The Destroyers for Bases Agreement, too, was quite grudging. It led to 50 decrepit American First World War destroyers being handed over in return for the USA obtaining bases in several British territories on the Western side of the Atlantic.

This shocking surrender of sovereignty indicates Britain was, piece by piece, handing naval and imperial supremacy to its former colony. It symbolises the true relationship between the USA and Britain in the post-Dunkirk months, as opposed to the sentimental fable still believed.

There’s much more in the linked piece. Hitchens has taken a lot of flak in the past for arguing that the British bombing of German population centers was unjustified, an issue that is revisited in the article. A lot of people find Hitchens’ viewpoint on this matter unpatriotic and disturbing because it undermines Britain’s moral standing in the war. This is of course a ridiculous non-argument, but the negative reaction is understandable. It’s very difficult for people to think objectively about events that are charged with personal or emotional significance, and this is especially true of World War II, which has loomed large in the imaginations of whole generations on both sides of the Atlantic.

This is a dirty job, but someone has to do it. By the way, I haven’t read the book yet, nor can I vouch for Hitchens’ arguments. All I can say is that Hitchens is a serious writer and thinker and I expect his treatment of the topic to be very interesting as well as controversial. History is complicated and our understanding of past events is fragmentary and distorted, full of yawning gaps and risible falsehoods. There is no reason to believe that history’s greatest conflict would be an exception to this rule.

Going medieval on them

review of the Catholic Church’s historical attitudes towards clerical sexual abuse indicates that the popes of the Middle Ages had far less of a sense of humor about the issue than their modern counterparts:

The early Roman Empire tolerated the sexual abuse of slave children, but the Church never did, and from the time of the Council of Elvira in 306 CE it was regarded not only as a sin punishable in the next life, but as a crime punishable in this one.

St. Basil of Caesarea, in his fourth century monastic rule, decreed that a monk who abused boys should be publicly whipped, his head shaved, he be spat upon and kept in prison for six months in chains on a diet of bread and water, and after release to be always subject to supervision, and kept out of contact with young people. This stricture was repeated in the canonical collections right through the Middle Ages.

The Church also adopted the secular law as laid down by the Emperor as part of its own canon law, because it regarded the Emperor’s power as coming from God. […]

All of that changed in 1917 when the first Code of Canon Law repealed those seven papal and Council decrees. Henceforth, the Church would deal with the problem as a purely canonical crime with no involvement of the State, and where the maximum punishment under canon law was dismissal from the priesthood. There are a number of explanations for this radical change of policy, including anti-clericalism in some countries, the idea of the Church as “a perfect society,” of the priest as a superior being blessed by God, and the invention of radio.

In 1922, Pope Pius XI issued his instruction Crimen Solliciationis that imposed the secret of the Holy Office on all information about clergy sexual abuse of children. The penalty for breach of the secret was automatic excommunication from the Church. That policy of the strictest secrecy has been confirmed or expanded by every pope since. It is still there in Article 30 of Pope John Paul II’s 2001 decree Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, as revised by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, with the only dispensation being that granted in 2010 to allow reporting to the civil authorities where the civil law requires it.

The rot has been spreading in the Church for a long time.

The widening vortex

That Richelieu feeling

In light of the swirling chaos in the Middle East, which will most likely be intensified by today’s strange “punitive” bombing of Syria, it’s instructive to consider how another great religious and ethnic conflict played out in Europe:

The Thirty Years’ War started in May 1618 when the Protestant Estates of Bohemia revolted against the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II. They threw his envoys out of the windows of the palace at Prague. Fortunately for them, the moat into which they fell was filled with rubbish and nobody was killed.

Had the revolt remained local, it would have been suppressed fairly quickly. As, in fact, it was in 1620 when the Habsburgs and their allies won the Battle of the White Mountain. Instead it expanded and expanded. […]

The similarities with the current war in Syria are obvious and chilling. This war, too, started with a revolt against an oppressive ruler and his regime. One who, however nasty he might be, at any rate had kept things more or less under control. […]

With so many interests, native and foreign, involved, a way out does not seem in sight. Nor can the outcome be foreseen any more than that of the Thirty Years’ War could be four years after the beginning of the conflict, i.e. 1622. In fact there is good reason to believe that the hostilities have just begun. Additional players such as Lebanon and Jordan may well be drawn in. That in turn will almost certainly bring in Israel as well. […]

As of the present, the greatest losers are going to be Syria and Iraq. Neither really exists any longer as organized entities, and neither seems to have a future as such an entity. The greatest winner is going to be Iran. Playing the role once reserved for Richelieu, the great 17th century French statesman, the Mullahs are watching the entire vast area from the Persian Gulf to Latakia on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean turn into a maelstrom of conflicting interests they can play with. Nor are they at all sorry to see Turks and Kurds kill each other to their hearts’ contents.

It’s mildly reassuring that US Defense Secretary Mattis is calling this missile strike a “one-time shot” (for now), but I don’t think anybody believes that we’ve seen the end of US military involvement in Syria. To the contrary, it has probably only just begun — and nobody knows when or how it will end, and at what cost.